Britten well served by revival of Decker’s Peter Grimes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Peter Grimes: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 21.6.2011. (MB)

Peter Grimes – Ben Heppner
Ellen Orford – Amanda Roocroft
Captain Balstrode – Jonathan Summers
Swallow – Matthew Best
Mrs Sedley – Jane Henschel
Auntie – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Ned Keene – Roderick Williams
Hobson – Stephen Richardson
Rector – Martyn Hill
Bob Boles – Alan Oke
First Niece – Rebecca Bottone
Second Niece – Anna Devin
Dr Crabbe – Walter Hall
Boy (John) – Patrick Curtis

Willy Decker (director)
François de Carpentries (revival director)
John Macfarlane (designs)
David Finn (lighting)
Athol Farmer (choreography)
Renato Balsadonna (Chorus Master)

London is doing well by Britten at the moment: Christopher Alden’s outstanding ENO production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is now joined by a fine Covent Garden revival of Willy Decker’s Peter Grimes. There was, I recall, indignation in certain quarters upon the production’s first London outing in 2004 – it was first seen at La Monnaie – but it is now difficult to imagine why. One would have to be a paid-up member of the Campaign for Real Barnacles to object to John Macfarlane’s powerful designs, which are hardly abstract in conception. Costumes are inoffensively in period, contributing to the sense of the Borough’s stifling bigotry and hypocrisy, the scarlet of the evening dance bringing out into the open the real interests of those erstwhile clad in monochrome. I suspect that hostility must have emanated from the quarters of those who are now outraged by Alden’s reimagining A Midsummer Night’s Dream: generally of an older generation, wishing to confine Britten to the safe, unthreatening pigeonhole of an ‘English composer’, when it is his demons that make him most interesting.

Claustrophobia and provincial small-mindedness are very much the order of the day in all aspects of Decker’s staging. (We, alas, know only too well the consequences of harrying outsiders, of hysterical accusations, of cynical pleas to ‘law and order’; it was a sad irony that this production opened on the very same day that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announced wholesale capitulation to the tabloid press in terms of reductions in prison sentences.) The Established Church becomes a powerful presence, not least in terms of the Cross carried by the witch-hunters. We are also reminded that Bob Boles, as a Methodist, has a dissenting edge to him, protesting rightly at the practice of buying apprentices from the workhouse. Unpalatable though many of their views may have been, Evangelicals would after all take a lead in a great deal of nineteenth-century social campaigning. Assent to the norms of the Borough is enforced congregationally both at the beginning of the first act and in the final scene. Even Ellen Orford raises her hymn sheet at the last, to complete a closing of ranks: a final, chilling unanimity, in which the true villain of the piece, the Borough, emerges tragically triumphant.

Sir Andrew Davis made a welcome return to the pit, summoning up as visceral and intelligent an account of the score as I can recall. Doubtless this will be anathema to the elder Brittenites, but I found it a more moving condemnation even than Britten’s own recording. The orchestra was on splendid form throughout, clearly responding with enthusiasm to Davis’s dramatic impetus, the brass in particular searing. There remain weakness in what is after all Britten’s first opera – Paul Bunyan is a rather different kettle of fish – but I cannot imagine them being better papered over than here. The sooner Britten shed outmoded taints of Verdi – the thin ‘Embroidery Aria, for instance – the better. Talk of Berg often seems like special pleading, but the reminiscences of Wozzeck – and Mahler – at the evening dance for once seemed real enough, a telling correspondence with Berg’s tavern scene, even if the latter’s music remains on an entirely different compositional level. I have never, moreover, heard the introduction to the second act sound so Stravinskyan, the tightness of rhythm recalling the Russian master’s anti-symphonic ‘symphonies’. Britten only gains by relation to continental developments: those who would confine him to visions of an Aldeburgh that never was do him nothing but harm, and would do well to remember his fervent desire to study with Berg.

What, then, of the vocal performances? Ben Heppner’s portrayal of the work’s anti-hero is powerful indeed. The flawed vocalism will doubtless dismay many: it certainly would me, if this were Tristan or Siegfried, but somehow it seems to matter less in so damaged a role as this. There is certainly vocal power, though unpredictably so: more Jon Vickers than Peter Pears, if without the former’s steely determination. One also needs to overlook, and I can imagine many being unable to do so, what are sometimes severe difficulties not only with respect to intonation but concerning wholesale pitching of lines, the entry to the Boar Inn the ultimate case in point. No, this is not a musical performance on the level of the three recently deceased artists to whom the present revival is dedicated: Robert Tear, Philip Langridge, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. But it moved me nevertheless, since it exhibited such sympathy with Grimes’s predicament. Moreover, I was surprised by the improvement in Heppner’s acting. Partly it is a matter of his somewhat awkward stage presence chiming with the demands of the role, but it is not only that. He puts what might be a disadvantage to good use, intensifying the lumbering quality, ever a loner. Amanda Roocroft also suffered from vocal insecurities, especially at the top, but by the same token also threw her dramatic all into the role of Ellen. Her goodness not only shone through, but seemed credible rather than sentimental. This is clearly an artists who requires careful casting, her recent Meistersinger Eva an unfortunate mistake, but there was much to admire on the present occasion.

A number of other assumptions stood out, none more so than Roderick Williams’s excellent Ned Keene: ever attentive to words and musical line, with finely judged, disconcertingly ambiguous stage presence. Balstrode seems to me a quintessential Thomas Allen role, but Jonathan Summers evoked a powerful human presence that was far from disgraced by the comparison. Alan Oke’s Boles captured well the air of the righteous fanatic, without ever resorting to mere caricature. Catherine Wyn-Rogers made for an unusually subtle portrayal of Auntie: nothing was ever straightforward with her kindliness or her slight brashness. Again, there was no need for caricature, and one could not help but respond to the warmth of her voice. Her ‘nieces’, Rebecca Bottone and Anna Devin both made strong impressions too, their proper air of grotesquerie never allowed to proceed too far. Then there was Jane Henschel’s wonderfully malicious Mrs Sedley. Somehow even the American accent did not jar, granting an air of Angela Lansbury to the crime addict’s already potent brew of Frau ohne Schatten Nurse and Anne Widdecombe. I could not take my eyes off her. Once again, there was a credible air of character rather than caricature, for which some of the praise must surely be accorded both to Decker and to revival director, François de Carpentries.

For there was certainly nothing of the routine to this revival. Even when something went wrong, a failure in a stage motor necessitating alterations to the second-act scene changes, the reworking was accomplished so professionally that I have to admit I did not notice, only learning of the difficulty afterwards. Finally, no praise is high enough for the magnificent contribution of the Royal Opera Chorus, as trained by Renato Balsadonna. Weight, intensity, diction, stage performance: all of these were irreproachable. Britten was well served indeed. And, just as Theodor Adorno in 1951 urged the necessity to defend Bach from his puritanical ‘devotees’, so should we, even those of us sometimes ambivalent in our response to the music of Benjamin Britten, defend him from his.

Mark Berry